Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Pentheus’s palace. Home of the Theban ruler Pentheus, Dionysus’s cousin, in front of which the action of Euripides’ play takes place. The palace represents the social structure of Thebes and the power of its king. For this reason the god drives the women of Thebes, who had refused to accept Pentheus willingly, away from the palace. The women worship him in the countryside, that is, beyond the boundary of Thebes. This place provides a way for Aeschylus’s Greek audiences to connect with the plot of this exotic play. When Dionysus is captured and brought before the palace, Pentheus questions his divinity and imprisons him in the palace as a fraud. In retaliation, Dionysus demonstrates his power and divinity by destroying the palace and driving Pentheus insane. The destruction of the palace illustrates the ability of the god to dominate human civilization in general and Theban society in particular. The tension between the worlds of Pentheus and Dionysus is further emphasized by the place of Pentheus’s death, which occurs offstage. Savagely torn apart by the women of Thebes, including his own mother, the king dies not in his city but in Dionysus’s realm, the countryside.
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Greece in the 5th century B.C. was a collection of many small, independent city-states, each called a ‘‘polis.’’ While these tribal communities would occasionally band together in a common cause, as the Athenians and Spartans did to overthrow Persian control of Greek colonies early in the century, they remained, for the most part, separate, autonomous entities, constantly suspicious of each other and forever questing for greater wealth and control in the realm.
The 5th century B.C. has been called the ‘‘Golden Age’’ of Greece, and for most of the era, the polis of Athens was the centerpiece of a burgeoning culture that has left an indelible imprint on more than two thousand years of science, religion, philosophy, and the arts. Golden Age Athens produced the philosopher Socrates and his pupil, Plato. Phidias, the famous sculptor, lived in the same community as the great dramatists Sophocles and Euripides. Pythagoras, Protagoras, and Herodotus, some of the greatest scientists and thinkers of all time, lived in the shadow of the famous Parthenon, perched atop the city’s Acropolis.
Politically, Athens accomplished what has been called the world’s first democracy nearly 2,500 years ago. Beginning with the ‘‘tyrannos,’’ or popular leader Pisistratus, who fought against aristocratic power in the 6th century B.C., Athens was led by a series of governors who included its citizens in the creation and enforcement of its laws,...
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Climactic Plot Construction
Classical Greek tragedians were the creators of climactic plot construction, a form of playwriting that condenses the action of the story into the final hours or moments of the protagonist’s struggle and places the most emphasis on the play’s climax. This is quite different from an episodic plot, such as those created by Shakespeare or those used by most modern films, in which the protagonist, or hero, of the story encounters many harrowing episodes in a story that may take place across many days, months, or even years. Aristotle recognized the appeal of climactic plots in his Poetics when he suggested that ‘‘beauty depends on magnitude and order.’’ In the case of a climactic plot such as The Bacchae, magnitude and order emerge from the simple structure of the plot: One man struggles against one overwhelming force, a god, and is defeated in the course of a single day.
In a climactic plot, the ‘‘point of attack,’’ or starting point, of the play is relatively late in the entire story, requiring a great deal of exposition up front. In other words, a number of things have already occurred to propel the action to the point it is at when the play begins and all that is left is for the protagonist to make the fatal error that plunges him into tragedy. In The Bacchae, for example, Dionysus presents a prologue at the beginning of the play that sums up what has already taken place: He...
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Compare and Contrast
5th Century B.C.: The Athenian democracy which evolved during the 5th century B.C. is considered to be the first of its kind in the world. Matters of the state are decided by a vote of the citizen assembly, known as the ekklesia.
Today: The United States is considered the world’s leading democratic nation, though American democratic practices are quite different. Of- ficials of the state are elected to one of three branches of the government: the executive, the legislative, or the judicial. Each branch is given different responsibilities and authorities to act on behalf of the citizens of the country, all of whom, men, women, and naturalized citizens included, may vote, or choose to run for office, during periodic public elections.
5th Century B.C.: Education in Athenian society is reserved for boys, who learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and music. Once the boys reach age twelve, physical education becomes a priority, and they are taught gymnastics and sports such as wrestling, running, the discus and javelin toss, which will serve them well during their mandatory military service at age eighteen. Middle and upper class girls, expecting to marry well, may learn to read and write, and perhaps play the lyre, from a female tutor at home. They rarely, if ever, participate in physical education or sports.
Today: Equal education for women, in both academic subjects and sports, is recognized as...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the agriculture and economy of Greece in the 5th century B.C. What products did the Greeks export? Which did they import? How was trade within the country, and outside the country, managed? How was the worship of Dionysus conducted to coincide with important phases of agriculture throughout the year?
When writing his plays, Euripides seems to have concentrated his efforts mainly on characters and themes and often appears to have ignored important elements of plot. Sophocles, on the other hand, has been called the greatest constructor of plots in the ancient world, and Aristotle called his Oedipus the King the finest example of Greek drama. Research Oedipus the King and compare it to The Bacchae. Consider the similarities and differences between each play’s plots, characters, and themes.
By the end of the 5th century B.C., Greek theatres had developed a distinct shape and very particular elements of scenery, costuming, and special effects that affected the way plays such as The Bacchae were produced. Research the physical properties of Greek theatres in the age of Euripides, then choose a scene from The Bacchae and describe how it might have been staged. As a group project, you may wish to actually recreate the scene you have chosen.
In his time, Euripides was widely known as skeptic, someone who questioned authority and doubted traditional beliefs. His ideas were influenced by, among...
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The Bacchae has inspired a handful of operas, including at least three that are available on CD: Szymanowski’s King Roger (1926) and Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids (1966), each available from the Koch Schwann label; and Harry Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1961), available on the Tomato label. Other operatic versions include Egon Wellesz’s Die Bakchantinnen (1931); Daniel Bortz’s Backanterna (1991); and John Buller’s Bakxai (1992).
Italian director and writer Giorgio Ferroni produced a filmed adaptation of Euripides’s play in 1961 called Le Baccanti. The film stars Taina Elg as Dirce (a character Ferroni introduced to his version of the story), Pierre Brice as Dionysus, and Elberto Lupo as Pentheus. An English version, called Bacchantes is available on video.
In 1968 the avant-garde American theatre producer Richard Schechner formed his own company called the Performance Group. Their first production, staged in a converted garage, was Dionysus in 69, a reworking of The Bacchae that explored sexuality, freedom, and societal repression through a series of ritual vignettes.
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What Do I Read Next?
Eighteen of Euripides’s plays have survived, each of which contains elements of the dramatist’s non-traditional style that raised criticism from his contemporaries and earned him the respect and admiration of later generations of play readers and theatergoers. One of his most popular works is Medea, Euripides’s 431 B.C. retelling of the myth of the sorceress who, faced with abandonment and exile in a strange land, murdered her own children and cursed her unfaithful husband. Hippolytus (428 B.C.) is the story of King Theseus’s bride Phaedra, who falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, leading them both down a path toward destruction.
Classical historian Michael Grant has written several books about the ancient Greeks and Romans, including The Rise of the Greeks (1987), which largely examines the political and military history of the Greek Empire; The Classical Greeks (1989), which provides a profile of Greek society through brief biographical essays about prominent Greek writers, philosophers, and leaders; and A Social History of Greece and Rome (1992), an exploration of the roles of women and men, slaves and citizens in Greek society.
The Mask of Apollo is a novel of historical fiction by Mary Renault. Niko, the story’s protagonist, is an actor in the 4th century B.C. who travels the Greek Empire, performing for kings and tyrants and befriending Plato, the famous philosopher, and Dion, a...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Kerr, Walter. God on the Gymnasium Floor, Simon and Schuster, 1971, p. 42.
Kroll, Jack. Review of The Bacchae in Newsweek, October 13, 1980, p. 135.
Muller, K. O. A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece: Volume I, Parker, 1858, p. 499.
Novick, Julius. Review of The Bacchae in the Nation, October 25, 1980, pp. 417-18.
Sandys, John Edwin. The Bacchae of Euripides, Cambridge University Press, 1880.
Schlegel, Augustus Wilhelm. A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, translated by John Black, H. G. Bohn, 1861.
Simon, John. Review of The Bacchae in New York, October 20, 1980, p. 101-02.
Arnott, Peter. The Ancient Greek and Roman Theatre, Random House, 1971. An accessible, basic introduction to the drama and stagecraft of the classical Greeks and Romans that includes theories about the origins of tragedy, suggestions about the evolution of the Greek performance space, a handful of illustrations, and a helpful bibliography.
Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre, Princeton University Press, 1961. An in-depth, scholarly look at the evolution of the classical Greek and Roman theatres, including many photographs, illustrations, and conjectural drawings.
Foley, Helene P. ‘‘The Bacchae’’ in her Ritual...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by Geoffrey S. Kirk. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Provides a translation and notes that are useful to anyone new to Euripides’ last complete play. Kirk provides a notable comparative text to other classic and ground-breaking versions of Euripides’ play.
Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by C. K. Williams. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. This version of the play is useful primarily for Martha Nussbaum’s introduction, which presents an alternative view of the play and sets it in relief against another Greek tragedy.
Grene, David, and Richmond Lattimore, ed. Greek Tragedies. Vol. 3. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Richmond Lattimore is a scholar known for his work on Euripides. Arguably the most faithful translation and introduction to The Bacchae published to date. Includes contextual notes and a clear view to an understanding of Euripides at the end of his career.
Segal, Charles. Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ “Bacchae.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Provides contextual background for The Bacchae and explains why it is such a radical text. Also discusses other works that deal with Dionysus and speculates on Euripides’ response to those texts....
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